Investing in your health is probably one of the smartest ways to spend your money at the moment and the second-generation Wattbike Atom bike is definitely an investment; at £1,899, it’s more than most of us would consider spending on an outdoor bike, but for those willing to spend and wait, there is a clear reason for it now more than ever.
Owning a Wattbike was on my wish list (extravagant version) even before last year changed everything. Once lockdown one came along, limits were placed on things we all took for granted; suddenly, the ability to jump on a bike amid the general chaos of family and working from home, stay safe at home, join a group ride on Zwift, see friends virtually, train properly, improve fitness and technique, and generally sweat out the frustrations of life, shifted this bike from the category of luxury item to extremely useful piece of kit. But is it any good?
In pride of place opposite the tumble dryer
What does the money get you?
It’s a whole heap of tech, but first, the basics. It’s quiet – rollers and turbo trainers are considerably louder than the Atom. Even the most whisper-quiet, direct-drive models generate some noise, but with workings of the Wattbike being housed internally, the sound is muffled in a way that external gears can’t even aspire to.
The footprint of the bike is also a major draw. When space is at a premium (which is very much the case in our house), the shape and size of the Atom trumps a bike attached to a static trainer. With no wheels to remove, the Atom is wholly self-contained and that makes a big difference. There are no protruding parts, no support struts sticking out the back, the front legs are as wide as the bars and the rear ones are directly under your bum.
It also feels much more stable than a turbo trainer, as the inevitable frame flex of a bike on a trainer doesn’t exist, especially when sprinting or climbing out of the saddle. This is down to some fairly complex elements of traditional bike design, such as torsional forces, lateral tube strength and other technical-sounding things that I’ve half made up, but also the simple fact that normal road bikes aren’t designed to be attached to something at the rear wheel that stops them behaving like road bikes when under stress. Again, with the Wattbike that’s not an issue because it is designed to be stationary and handle all the forces and movements that come with someone trying their best to outsprint someone else on the internet – on the spot. Of course, launch an overzealous and somewhat uncontrolled sprint and you MAY topple it over, but at 44kg and with a low centre of mass, that would be quite the feat. And why would you want to try?
The major draw of this bike is that it’s a gaming controller and training device in one. From a Zwift/Sufferfest gamification-of-cycling point of view, you plug it in, choose your favourite app, give the pedals a crank and the bike is ready to be synced up and deliver all the metrics you could possibly want, automatically adjusting resistance to replicate the gradient of the course you’re riding, all with your iPad/phone held firmly in place in front of you as you whizz. Simple. It’s Bluetooth, ANT+ and ANT-enabled and works with most devices and heart-rate monitors (check the fine print if your pain-cave setup requires something else).
As a training tool, you can open your favourite app and work through your session and training plan, see the numbers in front of you and reap the rewards of your hard work, but a bit of time in the Wattbike hub unlocks the real value of the machine, as you can work on refining your pedal stroke, left/right balance, power and all the nerdy cycling things your heart desires. Wattbike claim that ‘Flywheel and crank angle sensors read your data 1,000 times per second for accuracy of +/- 1% across the full power curve,’ which sounds incredibly impressive but, more importantly, it means the numbers you see in real time are as accurate as possible. Again, if you invest in any training tool, you want it to be precise, especially as online coaching is often the only option right now and some solid metrics will allow all parties the weaknesses and how to make improvements.
However, before you hit click on the order form, there are some small faults. There is a limit to how much you can customise the setup, especially if you’re fussy about bike positioning (and you should be). You can change the saddle height, and fore and aft position, move the handlebars up and down, and adjust the reach, but that’s about it. You can swap out the pedals and the saddle for your own, but the moment you think about changing the handlebars, you come across some issues. The clamp design is pretty industrial; that’s a good thing for stiffness, but it does mean it’s not easy to adjust it. Then you have to consider all the wiring etc relating to controls in the hoods; and, of course, not breaking anything.
Even adjusting the level position of the handlebars was attempted with a degree of concern and I found moving the hoods about equally tricky because of the wiring. All this made for a cockpit that wasn’t as refined as I’d like, certainly not as comfy as any of my outside bikes.
The main culprit here was the hoods, as they felt quite shallow and stubby, and, with my big hands, I found there simply wasn’t enough room to rest comfortably. Also, if you’re not a triathlete and don’t use an iPad, then remove the tri-bar extensions, as they take up a lot of room. If you do need them for an iPad (I did), you can save a bit of space on the tops by removing the forearm pads and switching the clamps to the underside of the bar.
Another issue was the shifting and, again, it was the hoods that posed the problem. Shifting is achieved via buttons in the front of the hoods and these little click buttons are the same size, if not smaller, then the sort you might find on the end of a pen. They’re built into the body of the hood, with the rubber sitting over the top of them. The rubber of the hood had a tendency now and again to move about just enough so as to become misaligned with the buttons and left me squeezing the hoods to no avail at the most crucial of times (getting dropped on climbs and getting ready to sprint), madly searching for gears. In the grand scheme of things, the odd missed gear shift here and there isn’t that bad, and it certainly happens out on the road, too, but after a while it became frustrating, especially because when it did work, the new electromagnet system delivered fast and smooth shifting.
As a caveat, a lot of these niggles come down to setup and as the bike was only on loan for a few weeks, my opportunities to play around were limited. Owning one would allow for plenty of tinkering, but I did spend time trying to correct these issues and they still persisted, so I feel it’s right to raise the points.
So, Should You Buy One?
The cost will probably be the main issue. Ask yourself what the bike is replacing, or is an alternative to, and how much that costs. Also, decide how much you are willing to pay for convenience, because that’s what you’re buying – more time riding and less time waiting for a window of opportunity so you can get changed, nip out for a decent amount of time, get back, clean the bike and still do all the other things you need to do.
Despite the grumbles, the ease with which this bike slipped into my daily routine and allowed me to fit in training – without having to undo a quick release or worry about getting oil on something – was a revelation. I didn’t wake anyone up trying to sneak out of the house early doors, I could do half an hour of riding without half an hour of getting ready and I even enjoyed the odd bit of TV while gently spinning along, for no other reason than I could.
It's an impressive bit of kit, shifting issues aside, and I found myself looking forward to the chance to ride, choosing it over my regular bike on a few occasions, as I wanted to chase some numbers and feel I’d had a good workout. However, for me, it stills come back to convenience and for those that need it, it is a price worth paying.
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